During the Advent season we’ve become somewhat accustomed to hearing jeremiads against the commercialization of the season, from clergy, faithful and even those who long ago stopped caring much about the religious side of Christmas.
They charge that the generic “holiday season” worships not the baby Jesus, but mammon — from wide-screen high definition televisions, to iPads, smartphones, Wii consoles, clothes, shoes and jewelry — and leads people to spend more time in malls than they do in prayer. Millions, they point out, think nothing of spending all night in adoration of commerce on Black Friday yet few will arrange their schedule to get up in the middle of the night to adore the Baby Jesus at Midnight Mass. Even many of the most faithful Catholics seem to focus more on getting Christmas trees ready and preparing to welcome and assist Santa Claus than they do on getting their souls ready to embrace and assist Christ.
But while there are clear excesses of emphasis that should concern anyone who cares for God, for our culture, and for others, I’ve never really joined in this chorus of criticism. Rather I’ve always been more impressed at this time of year by the generosity of people, who will spend their time and money unselfishly getting gifts for others, not just the members of their family, but through Secret Santa Programs, Giving Trees and the like, for people they will likely never even meet. I’m convinced that the sacrifices people make, the selfless generosity that’s involved, and its connection to the celebration of the birth of Jesus, must please God very much.
What I have a great issue with is what gifts we actually give. Rather than giving presents that help others to recognize and rejoice in the reason for the season, rather than trying to bring them into a greater communion with God-with-us, many Catholics give things that can foment others’ idolatries.
To a young boy who adores Tom Brady and the Patriots more than Jesus Christ and the saints, we fork over a small fortune to buy him a Pats jersey emblazoned with the number 12. For a young girl who obsesses about clothes and her outward appearance far more than she cares about the state of her soul, we purchase sweaters, dresses and foot gear that will spend far more time in her closet than they ever do on her. To teens who already are isolating themselves from family members by electronic games and gadgets, who are looking forward to Christmas not as a day of faith and family but to play a new game of Wii all day long or to barricade themselves in their room downloading and listening to songs on a new iPod, we sacrifice to get them what will indulge, rather than address, their wasting their time and alienating themselves from communion with God and others.
In other words, rather than giving gifts that will help others to celebrate Christmas, embrace the One who comes to us in Advent, and grow in faith, we sacrifice to give what may actually hurt them by weakening their faith through catalyzing the materialist secularism pushed by our culture.
In this Year of Faith in which we are reflecting on how our faith is meant to influence all we are and everything we do, it’s key for us to ponder how our faith is supposed to influence what, how and how much we give at Christmas.
As Catholics we should give differently than those who do not share our faith. In our giving, we should try to give in such a way that those we love receive something of the pearl of great price, the buried treasure that rust can’t corrode, burglars can’t steal and the IRS can’t tax. We should give in a way that they receive something of the real Gift of Christmas.
This does not mean we should never give material gifts. If we know a young child who has no winter jacket or winter boots or other necessities, it’s a beautiful thing to buy such a gift directly or as a Secret Santa. But when those for whom we’re buying aren’t in material want, how much better would it be in this Year of Faith for us to give and spread our faith along with our gift?
For young kids, we could give a Veggie Tales DVD, or a good book for kids on Bible stories or on the lives of the saints. We can give a statue or a framed image of a beautiful Nativity that can help others ponder the mystery of Christmas throughout the year. We can support the work of organizations like Bethlehem Christian Families (bcfmission.com) who come to the churches of our diocese to sell olive wood sculptures made by the families of Bethlehem, to try to support economically those who are trying to maintain a Christian presence in the Holy Land, while giving on to others beautiful handmade goods.
If the person for whom you’re shopping likes jewelry, perhaps you could get a beautiful Crucifix necklace, or a stainless steel scapular or miraculous medal, or a Rosary ring like the members of my Team of Our Lady gave me a few years ago and I’ve used it every day since to pray.
If you normally get others gift certificates, rather than giving a pre-paid credit card or certificates to Amazon or to iTunes, perhaps you could give a certificate to the gift shop at La Salette Shrine, where your friends and family can not only visit the great Christmas display but, in passing through the gift store, allow God to attract them to something that will help them advance in faith.
Other good ideas would be to give a DVD of a good Catholic movie — like the recently released “For Greater Glory” or any of the dozens of films at Ignatius.com — or a good Catholic book. Pope Benedict’s latest short read on the Infancy Narratives of Jesus would be a great work for anyone who is a college graduate or student. Christopher Kaczor’s latest work, “The Seven Big Myths about the Catholic Church,” would be a great read for anyone who has questions about the Catholic faith. For guys who might think that reading a book on the faith is not a virile activity, I’d encourage you to challenge them with Father Larry Richard’s accessible and compelling, “Be a Man!” And for women, young and old, I’d recommend Colleen Campbell’s “My Sisters the Saints,” about which I wrote last week.
When you send Christmas cards, rather than sending the secular ones featuring Frosty the Snowman or generic messages wishing “holiday cheer,” think about sending one with a beautiful image of Christmas with a message that expresses our great Catholic hope that they may join us in the joy of the Holy Family, shepherds and magi.
In the midst of a world that is trying to take Christ out of Christmas, it’s crucial for us who believe in Him — particularly in this Year of Faith — to take advantage of this season to spread our love of Him, by keeping Him front and center in the way we spend our time this season as well as in the way we sacrifice for others, by trying to give gifts that can be bridges for those we love to come to the Giver Himself and the greatest Gift of all.
Father Landry is Pastor of St. Bernadette Parish in Fall River.